Identifying Bug Bites: How to Prevent & Treat

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You try your best to prevent them, but bug bites happen. Between the stings, swelling and itching, it can be hard to know which type of bug is to blame and how to treat symptoms. Amanda Robinson, ARNP, UnityPoint Health, identifies common bug bites and how to prevent them.

Types of Bug Bites

Identifying bug bites isn’t always easy, and depending on the type of bite, symptoms can vary. Robinson says, regardless of what bug bit you, the bites typically have similar characteristics, including pain, itching, swelling and redness. Some common bug bites include bed bugs, mosquitos, ticks and chiggers. Here are a few tips to help you figure out what bit you:

Bed Bug Bites

What do Bed Bug Bites Look Like?

To identify bed bug bites, look for clusters of bug bite marks together on the face, neck, arms, hands or any other body parts, especially after sleeping. They resemble mosquito bites and are often itchy and appear slightly swollen and red. Some people have no reaction to bed bugs and won’t notice bite marks. Bed bug bites don’t always show up immediately and can take up to two weeks to develop in some people. 

Diseases from Bed Bug Bites: Bed bugs don’t spread disease.

Mosquito Bites

What do Mosquito Bites Look Like?

Mosquito bites appear as a slightly swollen and red area that may itch and be irritating. The symptoms usually develop quickly after being bitten and get progressively worse over 8-12 hours. Mosquito bites don’t usually appear in clusters. It may take up to 10 days for a bite to completely heal. While mosquito bites may happen any time of the day, this pest is most active during warmer months in the early morning and in the evenings — when it’s cooler.

Diseases from Mosquito Bites: Mosquitos can spread disease including Zika virus, West Nile virus, malaria, Chikungunya virus and dengue.

Tick Bites

What do Tick Bites Look Like?

You may notice a tick bite because you can still see the tick attached. If it dropped off, you might see a red spot or rash near the bite, which could itch and burn. However, many tick bites don’t have symptoms. If you notice more severe, flu-like symptoms call your doctor.

Diseases from Tick Bites: Ticks can carry Lyme disease.

Chigger Bites

What do Chigger Bites Look Like?

These bites usually show up in clusters. They like warm, moist areas of the body — like on the ankles where socks fit tightly, around the waist and near the groin. You might notice red skin with bumps, blisters or a hive-like rash not long after being in grassy or wooded areas.

Diseases from Chigger Bites: Chiggers aren’t dangerous and don’t spread disease.

“Rarely, bee stings can cause an allergic reaction in people, which can lead to a condition called anaphylactic shock,” Robinson says. “Symptoms of anaphylactic shock include hives, wheezing, shortness of breath and abdominal pain. Without appropriate care, death could result. Individuals who are allergic to bee stings should always carry an Epi-Pen with them.”

Bug Bites While Sleeping

Getting bug bites at night, especially when you’re asleep is no fun. There are three likely sources for bug bites at night — spiders, mosquitos or bed bugs. Spiders and mosquitos usually find their way into your home — and into your bedroom — during the warmer months.

“Honestly, many mosquito and spider bites look similar. With a new spider bite, you may see two distinct dots from the spider’s fang. Spider bites also tend to swell in more of a circular shape and mosquito welts look more uneven. For symptoms, spider bites often come with more pain, but both can be itchy,” Robinson says.

If you experience bug bites in clusters at night, make sure to check your bed for bed bugs. Pull back the sheets to look for any of the reddish, brown bugs, particularly focusing on reviewing the seams and the head of the bed.

How to Prevent Bug Bites

“As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. While some bug bites can’t really be prevented, there are proven ways to guard off others,” Robinson says.

Using insect repellent can be an effective prevention method, but only for certain bugs.

  • Non-preventable. Unfortunately, repellents aren’t effective against stinging insects, such as bees, wasps or hornets. They also don’t keep spiders away. You really can’t prevent stings or bites from these pests, other than staying away from areas of known infestation.
  • Preventable. Repellents are extremely useful in keeping mosquitoes, biting flies, gnats, fleas, chiggers and ticks away.

Mosquito repellents containing picaridin and DEET are the most recommended forms of prevention. Wristbands, stickers or other wearables containing repellent are not as effective, regardless of the repellent type used. 

“If you’re specifically trying to fend off ticks, products with DEET are best. You may also consider permethrin-treated clothing and gear. For pests like gnats and mosquitos, using either DEET, picaridin or PMD (para-Menthane-3,8-diol) products work well. If you’re trying to go all-natural, lemon eucalyptus oil is a great option. It’s safe for use on children over the age of 3,” Robinson says.

Robinson offers these tips when using bug spray:

  • Lightly cover skin. Use just enough to lightly cover, but not saturate, your skin. If you’re using with sunscreen, apply the sunscreen before the bug spray. Frequent reapplication of repellent isn’t necessary.
  • Don’t apply under clothing. Apply insect repellent to exposed skin, clothing or both, but not under clothing.
  • Wash your hands. Clean your hands after applying repellent, and don’t apply it to the hands of small children, as they will end up rubbing their eyes.
  • Not for everyone. Some products, especially those with higher DEET contents aren’t for very young children. Read the label to make sure you’re using products safely.

How to Treat Bug Bites

From ice to oatmeal and even honey — there are plenty of home remedies to help relieve itching bug bites

“Start by using cold compresses for stings or bites. An over-the-counter cortisone cream is great for itching. If these options don’t provide enough relief, consider a trip to urgent care for a prescription cream or ointment. If you believe your bug bite is infected, definitely come see us,” Robinson says.